Quick Summary: “Everything is Obvious” by Duncan Watts is a thorough investigation into the nature of practical judgments and the shared mechanisms which usually help us make them, i.e., common sense. Drawing on the latest scientific research and numerous examples, the book reveals that we know far less about the world than we think we do.
Who Should Read “Everything is Obvious”? And Why?
Drawing on the very latest findings in the social sciences, Everything Is Obvious reveals some things which, as its blurb states, have “important implications in politics, business, and marketing, as well as in science and everyday life.”
Consequently, it is not an exaggeration to say that this book is for everyone. You’ll enjoy it very much if you like to read about biases and prejudices, about human behavior and the problems with future predictions.
Everything is Obvious Summary
PART I COMMON SENSE
CHAPTER 1 The Myth of Common Sense
What Is Common Sense?
“Common sense is so ordinary that we tend to notice it only when it’s missing,” notes Duncan James Watts in the first chapter of Everything Is Obvious. And just like many ordinary things which are around us all the time—like, say, time itself—it is also pretty difficult to define it.
“Roughly speaking,” informs us Watts, common sense “is the loosely organized set of facts, observations, experiences, insights, and pieces of received wisdom that each of us accumulates over a lifetime, in the course of encountering, dealing with, and learning from, everyday situations.”
In practical terms, it is what tells you to not go to work without your pants on, or, say, cheat your trusting friend out of his money. It is what lies buried inside proverbs, aphorisms, and saying—you know, the obvious thing.
Interestingly enough, as sociologists are fond of pointing out pretty often, many of these aphorisms appear to be direct contradictions of each other.
For example, birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is out of mind. Look before you leap, but, then again, he who hesitates is lost.
“Of course,” notes Watts, “it is not necessarily the case that these beliefs are contradictory—because we invoke different aphorisms in different circumstances. But because we never specify the conditions under which one aphorism applies versus another, we have no way of describing what it is that we really think or why we think it.”
“Common sense,” he concludes, “is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.”
The Misuse of Common Sense
Of course, if something is a grab bag of logically inconsistent beliefs, and if that grab bag is carried by virtually every human on this planet, then we’re bound to misuse it—and it seems, we do this quite often.
Watts is not talking about day-to-day situations: everyday life, he says, is effectively broken up into small problems, grounded in very specific contexts, and in cases such as these, using your common sense is quite harmless, even beneficial.
However, when we use common sense to solve problems that are not grounded in “the immediate here and now of everyday life”—that’s when we’re bound to make serious mistakes.
What kind of problems are we talking about?
Well, practically every problem which involves us “anticipating or managing the behavior of large numbers of people, in situations that are distant from us either in time or space.”
You’ve never done this?
What about every single discussion you’ve had about politics, or economics, or the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the healthcare plan?
Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but what you were doing in most of these cases was nothing short of ridiculous: applying your common sense to talk about problems such as these is as wrong as applying nail polish to your eyes.
Simply put, that’s not what common sense is for. And some people—the actual politicians and economists—do this all the time. And there—now you know why there are so many problems around the world.
CHAPTER 2 Thinking About Thinking
The main problem with common sense is this: when you use it wrong, it doesn’t allow you for a minute to see that you’re wrong, because, simply put, that is also part of its job.
And sociologists and psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated to us that we are not that smart because our brain is haunted by a host of thinking demons called biases which can easily be turned against us by people who know how to command them.
The Default Option
One way to do this is to nudge these demons in the preferable direction, by making the option you’d like for another one to make the default one.
Don’t believe it works?
Consider this: in Germany, only one in ten people (about 12%) agreed to be an organ donor over the course of one year. In Austria, on the other hand, ten in ten (99%) did that.
Why? What could be so different about these two countries, populated by virtually the same people?
Well, just one small thing: in Austria, the default choice is to be an organ donor, whereas in Germany the default is not to be.
Watts writes: “The difference in policies seems trivial—it’s just the difference between having to mail in a simple form and not having to—but it’s enough to push the donor rate from 12 percent to 99.9 percent.”
And it’s not an isolated case: “what was true for Austria and Germany was true across all of Europe—all the countries with very high rates of organ donation had opt-out policies, while the countries with low rates were all opt-in.”
Another way to trick another person into doing something he/she might not like is through a technique called priming, i.e., influencing a decision with particular words, sounds, or other stimuli.
For example, subjects in experiments who read words like “old” and “frail” walk more slowly down the corridor when they leave the lab compared to those who read words such as “young” and “vivacious.”
Also, consumers in wine stores are more likely to buy German wine when German music is playing in the background, and French wine when French music is playing;
Possibly even stranger, when asked about energy drinks, consumers are more likely to name “Gatorade” when given a green pen in order to fill out a given survey.
Finally—and most fascinatingly—”shoppers looking to buy a couch online are more likely to opt for an expensive, comfortable-looking couch when the background of the website is of fluffy white clouds, and more likely to buy the harder, cheaper option when the background consists of dollar coins.”
Still think that couch you bought and the wine you’ll be drinking tonight was your choice?
There’s yet a third technique to influence someone else’s common sense thinking.
It’s called anchoring, and it basically consists of skewing the response of another person in the desired direction by giving him irrelevant numerical information.
That’s what the “suggested donation” is for: to make you give—and you will, almost always—at least as much or more than the suggested amount.
Have you ever given less?
CHAPTER 3 The Wisdom (and Madness) of Crowds
Already afraid that you’re being willfully manipulated by your common sense (and by those who know how it works) on a daily basis?
The bad news is that Watts is not done with the biases and all the failings of these common sense thinking methods.
As the title suggests, in the third chapter, he goes over some of the reasons why there are things such as tulipomania and speculative bubbles, exploring the wisdom—and much more the madness—of crowds.
Ask anyone which is the most beautiful painting in the world, and he/she will probably tell you that it’s Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Ask him why and he/she is bound to offer some explanations: the enigmatic smile, the perfect use of light, the fantastical background, etc.
It’s, after all, commonsense knowledge, isn’t it?
That’s the problem: it’s commonsense knowledge because it is commonsense knowledge.
In other words, if these qualities were intrinsic to Mona Lisa and to no other painting, then it would have been easier to explain: maybe beauty is in them; however, in other paintings, these same things don’t inspire as much admiration.
To remind ourselves of the Euthyphro dilemma: “is Mona Lisa beautiful because of its beauty, or is it beautiful because people say it is?”
Unfortunately, it is the latter. Even if we say Mona Lisa is beautiful because it is a combination of all of these attributes at once, we’re once again thinking circularly.
“We claim to be saying that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it has attributes X, Y, and Z. But really what we’re saying is that the Mona Lisa is famous because it’s more like the Mona Lisa than anything else.”
In short, what you’re saying is that Mona Lisa is the best painting out there because other people have said that before you and only then you’re trying to find reasons to justify your thoughts.
This latter part is something sociologists refer to as cumulative advantage. Watts himself devised an experiment to demonstrate how it works in practice.
He divided people into two groups, asking each of the members of the groups to rate the songs they like the most. One of the groups, however—the treatment group—could see how many times each of the songs had been downloaded.
The treatment group rated these songs higher than the others, downloading them more often than the control group!
CHAPTER 4 Special People
Like it or not, the 21st century, so far, seems to be a century of influencers, i.e., people capable of influencing whole networks of people.
The idea that such a thing is possible in the first place dates back to 1967 when Stanley Milgram did an experiment involving 300 people in two separate cities. He asked them to pass a message to a friend of theirs by first handing it over to a stranger.
His conclusions are famous to this day: on average, it took six connections for a message to reach the desired destination (hence, six degrees of separation), and nearly half of the messages passed through the hands of three individuals.
These individuals are basically what we now term influencers: they are the dream of marketers and the shortcut to fame. Pay Kim Kardashian $10,000 to tweet your product, and you’re bound to make some money.
However, Watts tried to replicate this experiment on a grander lab-free scale and discovered that one of these conclusions is wrong.
Watts and his collaborators (Roby Muhamad and Peter Dodds) used emails instead of letters and included 60,000 people in over 166 countries.
Remarkably, on average, it still took roughly seven steps for a message to reach its final recipient. However, no hubs were created: “messages reached their targets through almost as many recipients as there were chains.”
The reason why you believe that there is such a thing as an influencer is common sense: it sounds reasonable that there are some people who are more connected than others.
The truth is that, in real-life networks, we each play an important role in spreading information and paying $10,000 to Kim Kardashian for a single tweet may eventually amount to the same result as paying 10,000 people $1 dollar for 10,000 tweets.
CHAPTER 5 History, The Fickle Teacher
“The only thing we learn from history,” quipped once George Bernard Shaw, “is that we learn nothing from history.”
Well, sociologists now know that this is true. But, they say, it is not because we don’t pay enough attention or because we don’t know our history enough; it is the opposite: we pay too much attention, and we think we know too much about our history.
History, unfortunately, is run only once and we can’t turn back the time. Consequently, it is the very opposite of an experiment: nothing we claim to have learned from it is the result of rigorous testing.
Put simpler, the same people act differently in two different contexts. So why should the same events—or even strings of events—cause the same consequences if they happen in two different periods of time?
Naturally, they won’t. We just think they would.
And, once again, the culprit is our common sense: intuitively, we think that we know precisely what caused what, but unlike the people who lived through these events, we analyze them in retrospect.
And there’s a big difference: the people who actually lived through them couldn’t have seen what we think they must have.
It’s even more frightening than this: history is told by people with biases in narrative sentences. And narrative sentences murk the difference between myth and reality, something which is further muddled by the interests of the chronicler.
Add to this that it is the winners who write history and you’re in quite the pickle: has anything that ever happened really happened in the way we think it did?
And if we can’t tell so many things about the past, how are we so sure that we can predict the future—something central to planning, policy, strategy, management, marketing, etc.?
CHAPTER 6 The Dream of Prediction
Well, that’s once again our common sense leading us astray: future, as should be common sense, is absolutely unpredictable (anything can happen at any time), and numerous people have learned this the hard way.
For example, thousands and thousands of them have lost money investing in things investors told them would inevitably bring them some fast cash. Something happens, though, and the money is suddenly lost.
After it happens, there are many people who’d tell you what the original problem was. However, just taking into consideration what we told you above about history and hindsight, how do we know if these people knew beforehand or are just predicting things after the events?
Well, if you ask Nassim Nicholas Taleb whom Watts quotes, the answer should be fairly obvious: it is the latter, aka the people who say they had known something would happen beforehand, are merely lying to themselves.
Because of two unshakably real things: survivorship bias and the black swan effect.
As defined by Wikipedia, survivorship bias is the “logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.”
In other words, out of a million people who’d attempt to predict a future, it is statistically very likely that at least a few would guess right. The problem: you’d only hear about them.
But even they would probably fail to predict the black swan events, i.e., events so unpredictable that nobody believes when they happen. (Hence the name: European settlers in Australia were stunned to find out that there are black swans, contrary to a popular commonsense Roman saying.)
To wrap up, before 9/11, nobody could have predicted the attack. But how should we organize ourselves to be safe against them?
PART II UNCOMMON SENSE
CHAPTER 7 The Best-Laid Plans
So, predicting things your common sense says are predictable is almost impossible—for two reasons: there are multiple possible futures, and we’re focusing on one, and there are billions of unimportant things that influence other things, and we can only think of the things that matter.
In addition, “predicting black swans is… doubly hopeless,” notes Watts, “because until history has played out, it’s impossible even to know what the relevant terms are.”
However, as any good poker player can tell you, even though “counting cards won’t tell you exactly which card is going to show up next… by knowing the odds better than your opponents, you can still make a lot of money over time by placing more informed bets and winning more often than you lose.”
And that’s precisely why some predictions—whether in poker or sporting events—work better than the rest: they take part in something called the prediction market.
The prediction market is basically the survivorship bias turned on its head: you take into account all of the predictions, and that helps you make better-informed forecast.
This is what James Surowiecki dubs “the wisdom of crowds”: “although individual people tend to make highly error-prone predictions when lots of these estimates are averaged together, the errors have a tendency to cancel out.” Hence, the prediction market will always be “smarter” than its constituents.
However, the prediction market is not that helpful when it comes to large, strategic decisions—the ones made by governments and corporations from time to time. The reason is simple: these events do not occur with high frequency.
If you want to be more resilient in cases such as these, you’re better off planning for individual outcomes (i.e., multiple futures). But, how many outcomes should you plan for ahead?
CHAPTER 8 The Measure of All Things
More often than not, you’d think that plans fail because planners— whether government planners trying to reduce global poverty or advertising planners trying to launch a new campaign for a client—ignore common sense.
But that’s what your common sense tells you to think after the fact: “of course it went wrong,” you say, “they didn’t take into account the thing I, from the future, can see that should have been taken into account.”
In fact, it’s the other way around: planners fail “because they rely on their own common sense to reason about the behavior of people who are different from them.”
This seems like an easy trap to avoid—but, Watts says, it isn’t.
“We will always be tempted to think that we know how other people will react to a new product, or to a politician’s campaign speech, or to a new tax law. ‘It’ll never work,’ we will want to say, ‘because people just don’t like that kind of thing,’ or ‘No one will be fooled by his obvious chicanery,’ or ‘Such a tax will reduce incentives to work hard and invest in the economy.’”
None of this can be helped, apparently: “we cannot suppress our commonsense intuition any more than we can will our heart to stop beating.”
So, what can we do?
Simple: we can remember that “whenever it comes to questions of business strategy or government policy, or even marketing campaigns and website design, we must rely less on our common sense and more on what we can measure.”
Just like in the prediction market: more data means better judgments. Less data means making nothing more than common sense decisions, i.e., what you would have made without any sort of data to start with.
It’s pretty obvious what you should do, isn’t it?
CHAPTER 9 Fairness and Justice
What very few people tell you is that luck plays a large part in the way you’re treated in society, because even our understanding about fairness and justice is profoundly dependent on the oftentimes unforeseeable outcome of some events.
Consider this example: a driver kills four people, including an unborn child. It is later discovered that he had been drinking with his friends and that he is a police officer. Of course, he is tried and sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison.
He is widely criticized for his behavior, and very few people find even a single good word for him.
Well, how many times have you driven your car after a night out drinking? What if you had killed someone?
Still, you didn’t, and the man from the example—he is real, and his name is Joseph Gray—did. You’re still considered an honest and good person. He, even though he has served as a police officer, is (and quite justly) not.
The point of this thought experiment is simple: random luck has a real and very tangible effect on our lives. Many studies (in addition to the Up Series) have shown that people of similar talent end up at very different levels of success, and some honest entrepreneurs have admitted that they owe a lot of their success to sheer luck.
That’s why the debate between Nozick and Rawls about what constitutes a just society is basically pointless: they are talking about two different things.
In the natural world, the libertarian Nozick might be right: to everyone what he has worked for.
However, we live in a society, so the liberal John Rawls is the only one who makes sense: a just society should minimize the effect of random luck on inequality.
CHAPTER 10 The Proper Study of Mankind
People have always longed to know things.
And, in the case of some disciplines, they can be fairly sure that they actually know them: physics and chemistry are, more or less, exact sciences, and their findings are confirmed by repeatable experiments.
Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology, for example, are fairly different: they study man, and man is not only ever-changeable creature but a host of billions of unique personalities.
That’s why many of the social and psychological experiments some smart people have done in the past may be just plain wrong: as the author has shown by repeating Stanley Milgram’s “six degrees of separation” experiment, what works for 300 people may not work for 60,000. And what about 6 billion?
Fortunately, we live in a day and age where we can finally analyze data better: Twitter, Facebook, and search engine queries offer sociologists invaluable treasure trove of data and their findings because based on larger specimens, are inevitably more correct.
What they have already discovered is simple: common sense answers to complex questions are, more often than not, wrong.
“Just as the invention of the telescope revolutionized the study of the heavens,” concludes Watts, “so too by rendering the unmeasurable measurable, the technological revolution in mobile, Web, and Internet communications has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and how we interact.”
Key Lessons from “Everything is Obvious”
1. Common Sense Works in Everyday Situations—But Not in Situations Which Really Matter
2. We Should Uncommon Our Sense to Solve Our Problems
3. Social Science Has Discovered Its Telescope—and It’s Something Rather Banal
Common Sense Works in Everyday Situations—But Not in Situations Which Really Matter
Common sense is something you need no definition for: it’s the first thing that pops into your brain in any given situation, the obvious answers to the questions of life.
Fortunately, common sense is a powerful mechanism which helps people deal with everyday problems; unfortunately, the very same mechanisms (intuition, generalizations, fast thinking) that help you safely get through your day are the reasons why economists and politicians have caused so much unnecessary suffering.
Put simply, when it comes to important, large-scale strategic decisions which involve anticipation and prediction—common sense does us many disfavors.
We Should Uncommon Our Sense to Solve Our Problems
Consequently, if we want to solve serious problems, we need to use something Watts refers to as the uncommon sense, i.e., to use the things we know about the deficiencies of our common sense (which we know via social experiments) and transform them into advantages.
Things such as the prediction market and redistribution of wealth (and other things) work—but are merely the start of a long journey toward a just, resilient, future-proof society.
Social Science Has Discovered Its Telescope—and It’s Something Rather Banal
Robert Merton—the eminent social scientist, and not the Nobel-Prize winning economist who failed—once noted that social science hasn’t found its Kepler and its telescope, i.e., the tool which would revolutionize the field.
Duncan Watts think that we’ve finally happened upon it. And it’s the thing you’d least expect to be: social media networks, Google search queries, the cloud.
Because of these things, social scientists nowadays have the privilege to deal with much, much larger sets of data than their predecessors could.
And that, Watts, believes, has already started a revolution.
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Everything is Obvious QuotesWhat appear to us to be causal explanations are in fact just stories—descriptions of what happened that tell us little, if anything, about the mechanisms at work. Click To Tweet Something is wrong with the entire argument of ‘obviousness.’ Click To Tweet Criticizing common sense, it must be said, is a tricky business. Click To Tweet In any given situation we know the point we’re trying to make or the decision we want to support, and we choose the appropriate piece of commonsense wisdom to apply to it. Click To Tweet Bad things happen not because we forget to use our common sense, but rather because the incredible effectiveness of common sense in solving the problems of everyday life causes us to put more faith in it than it can bear. Click To Tweet
“Every once in a while,” writes Dan Ariely, “a book comes along that forces us to re-examine what we know and how we know it. [Everything Is Obvious] is one of those books. And while it is not always pleasurable to realize the many ways in which we are wrong, it is useful to figure out the cases where our intuitions fail us.”
And really, Watts’ study does precisely that: well-researched, enjoyable, and eye-opening, it is one of those books that are bound to haunt you for a while.If you ask us: the longer Everything Is Obvious stays with you, the better for everybody. Whoever you are.
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